The term “drugs” is very broad, encompassing over-the-counter, behind-the-counter prescription and illicit substances. Generally speaking, a drug is considered a chemical substance that changes a body’s normal functions once absorbed by it. There are different meanings in the worlds of medicine and law. In the U.S., the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act defines “drug” as “articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease in man or other animals.”


Medicine is also a broad term but is typically considered a drug taken to cure or relieve symptoms of an illness or medical condition. It may also be a drug taken preventatively. Medicine is regulated by the federal government and includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs and behind-the-counter preparations, which are dispensed by a pharmacist and don’t require a prescription from a doctor.

Recreational Drugs

Many people use drugs recreationally to experience a particular effect such as a high, rush, sense of calm or euphoria. Psychoactive substances are often used as a means to attain a heightened mood or a fun, pleasurable experience. Many drugs used recreationally, misused or abused are against the law. Prescription drugs including opiates are heavily regulated due to their potential to be habit-forming. Alcohol and tobacco are often considered recreational drugs but are socially accepted and regulated only by age.

Illicit Drugs

Illicit, or illegal, drugs include substances such as heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, LSD and other hallucinogens. In most cases, marijuana is illegal in the U.S., but is approved for medicinal purposes in some states. Criminal penalties are imposed to curb illegal drug use, but some argue the nation’s “war on drugs” has not been effective. The market for illicit drugs is a billion dollar international business and is a taxing problem for local, state, national and international entities. The use of illegal drugs is also a societal problem, leading to misuse, abuse, dependence and full-blown addiction. Illegal drug use is also linked with a host of property and personal crimes, including theft, prostitution, shoplifting and robbery.

Prescription Drugs: Misuse And Abuse

Prescription drugs are useful in the treatment of many conditions and illnesses. Commonly abused classes of prescription drugs include: central nervous system depressants to treat anxiety and sleep disorders; stimulants used to treat ADHD and other disorders; and opiates, prescribed most often for pain relief. Opiates include morphine and codeine, along with synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Fentanyl, Norco, Darvocet, Dilaudid, Tramadol, Lortab and Percocet. In 2006, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health said 16.2 million American age 12 and older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, sedative or stimulant non-medically at least once in the year prior to the survey.